Can they justify their £750m JIF awards?

August 30, 2002

THES staff assess the Joint Infrastructure Fund's impact.

When the Joint Infrastructure Fund was unveiled by the Office of Science and Technology and the Wellcome Trust in July 1998, it sparked a flood of requests for help from the UK's ailing research community. Some 819 applications were made by 76 institutions seeking a total of about £4.3 billion.

When the JIF finally doled out cash - £750 million spread among 152 projects at 41 institutions - critics were quick to note that three institutions shared 39 of the awards, with Oxford and Cambridge universities securing a quarter of the available funds.

Furthermore, English universities received a disproportionate amount of support compared with their Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts.

Much of the money was allocated to new projects and buildings, ignoring the dire state of many existing laboratories, and in many cases funds did not stretch to cover running costs. Institutions were therefore forced to embark on additional fundraising to make the most of their new infrastructure.

Four years on, The THES makes a progress check on a sample of four JIF projects.

Cambridge chemists
By 1998, Cambridge University's chemistry laboratories no longer complied with safety regulations, lacked modern equipment and were overcrowded. The estimated cost of bringing them up to scratch was £78 million.

The JIF gave the department £28 million (80 per cent of what it had requested) on the condition that it did not reduce the scope of its revamp project. The department raised another £6 million each from the university and from multinational Unilever and £1.5 million from BP before beginning work. Costs soared, however, forcing the university to stump up £3 million more and requiring the department to borrow £1 million.

Department head Jeremy Saunders said: "The JIF grant has provided us with tremendous opportunities for the future and has dramatically improved safety.

"This will justify the practical problems of living on a building site for the past three years. But at the end of all of this, the department will have a debt, and a third of the building will still be in need of a major refurbishment."

Gravitation to Glasgow
Gravity may well be the force that shapes the universe, but detecting gravitational waves requires very sensitive detection systems. A new class of detectors is being developed by physicists at Glasgow University's Institute for Gravitational Research with the help of a £2 million JIF grant.

The equipment uses ultra-high quality optics and interferometry to pick up ripples in the curvature of space-time produced by interactions between large stellar masses. This will provide far more information about stellar interactions than that gleaned from electromagnetic radiation.

Physicists have set up a clean laboratory and vacuum system as a test bed for a large interferometer under construction. Once it is working, equipment will be transferred to facilities in Germany and the US to begin the search for gravitational waves.

Harry Ward, senior lecturer in physics and astronomy at Glasgow, said the work would open a window on the universe to study phenomena such as supernova explosions and pulsars. "As well as opening up a new branch of astronomy, this is giving us a seat at the high table of international astrophysics," he said.

Social science secure
Last autumn, prime minister Tony Blair opened Birmingham University's European Research Institute, a project funded by one of the few JIF awards to social science. On top of the JIF money, the university provided about £5 million towards the £9.8 million building.

The institute aims to be the UK's leading centre for research on Europe. It houses four departments covering Russia and eastern Europe, Germany, politics and international studies and studies in security and diplomacy. Previously, these centres were scattered across the campus.

ERI director Anand Menon said that the high-profile opening had put Birmingham's expertise on the map. "Previously it was only for people in the know in the academic world. But public money means public attention," he said.

The facilities have already been used by defence secretary Geoff Hoon and foreign office minister Peter Hain.

Professor Menon said that other departments, particularly in the sciences, had grumbled at a social-science project getting funding. "I know science infrastructure needs are higher than ours and that they need expensive equipment. But this is a strategic area, and we put together a well-crafted bid."

Help for hydrologists
Staking out three separate river basins covering 300 square kilometres each with a variety of scientific instruments presented a consortium of academic scientists with major logistical problems.

Such an effort to get to grips with the complexity of these regions, with their vital ground-water resources and important aquatic habitats, had not been tried before in the UK.

Howard Wheater, professor of hydrology for environmental management at Imperial College, London, received a £2 million JIF award on behalf of a consortium of four institutions towards the cost of the field equipment. More funds came from the Natural Environment Research Council's £7.75 million lowland catchment research programme.

The three basins - the Pang/ Lambourn, Tern and Frome/Piddle - are being fitted with an array of instruments that should be ready next month despite the complexity of managing such a vast project within Nerc guidelines and a significant underestimation of costs.

The Nerc has started funding research projects to use the facilities, and most will be under way by October. The work will study how widespread and complex environmental pressures are affecting lowland catchments, from contributing to flooding to blighting water quality. Ultimately, the work will help with projects to devise sustainable management policies.

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